Canon ef-s 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Review

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Canon Ef-s 15-85mm Stock Image

Let me start out by saying that this review will be practical, not technical. There are a host of technical reviews on the internet (Rockwell, Digital-Picture, CameraLabs, etc.) so if you are driven by the techy/geeky stuff, you would be better served reading those. If you have more of a desire to know how the lens handles in the field and ultimately, how good its image quality is, then read on.

I’ve never really liked the idea of the ef-s lens and swore I wouldn’t own one because I wouldn’t be able to use it on a full frame camera body. Then one day, I sold my Canon 1Ds MkII and was left with just my 7D. My former ef 24-70mm lens was great, but just not wide enough on the 7D so I started considering the ef-s 15-85mm lens and yes, read all of the techy/geeky reviews. They all raved about it and these reviews were helpful for me to read, but all I really wanted to know was a user’s perspective of what was good or bad. Of course, I also wanted to see images from the field. So after owning this lens a little over 6 months, I’m going to give you my list (no particular order) of Pros/Cons, followed by examples of images taken with this lens on my Canon 7D.

Pros

Focal Length – The 15-85mm range is equivalent to a 24-136mm range on a full frame body and that makes this lens a great General Purpose/Walk Around lens that has a variety of uses from landscapes to portraits. I’ve read others say you can use it for macro work as well since it is a close focusing lens, but I have a dedicated macro as well as a 70-200/2.8 lens that fill that niche so I really don’t feel the need to test its macro capabilities.

CLICK ON ALL IMAGES FOR A BETTER VIEW.

Fall Scenic. Canon 7D | ef-s 15-85mm @ 59mm | ISO 100

Fall Scenic. Canon 7D | ef-s 15-85mm @ 59mm | ISO 100 | Tripod

Build & Handling – Considering I used to own the ef 24-70/2.8, the ef-s 15-85mm lens is not built quite as solid. In fact, it’s mostly plastic with a metal mount. Yet, it still has a solid feel and it handles great. The zoom ring is very smooth and I’ve experienced no zoom creep. On the plus side, it’s a much lighter lens to carry around than my former 24-70 lens.

Filter Size– It accepts a 72mm filter and with its internal focus design, the front filter ring does not rotate while zooming. This is particularly important when shooting with a circular polarizer. I own a couple of 72 mm filters but can easily use my 77mm filters with a 72-77mm step-up ring.

Image Stabilization- This is the only lens in my bag that has Image Stabilization. It’s not that I do not like IS, it’s just that the lenses I have acquired to this point simply do not have it. I really do like having IS but because I am not used to it, I have to remember to turn off the IS when mounted on a tripod. I forgot to do that one night and I was frustrated by soft images until someone I was shooting with asked if I had IS on. Once I turned that off, my images were sharp. Canon reports up to 4 stops gained with the IS. Whatever the number, it seems to work. I handheld the nighttime shot of Cinderella’s castle below and was surprised at how many sharp images I was able to attain.

Cinderella's Castle. Canon 7D | ef-s 15-85mm @ 50mm |  ISO 3200 | f7.1 | 1/20 sec

Cinderella’s Castle. Canon 7D | ef-s 15-85mm @ 50mm | ISO 3200 | f7.1 | 1/20 sec | Handheld

Price- I purchased this lens used (near mint) for $500 and given the many sharp images I’ve captured with it, I think it was a great value.

Image Quality– This lens is pleasingly sharp with good contrast and color. Bokeh is good but if you are used to a f/2.8 or f/1.4 lens, you will notice its shortcoming here. Still, if you use it wide open at its longer focal length and keep the background at a distance roughly twice that of camera to subject, the background will be pleasantly blurred. Overall, I think the image quality is great. Is it as good as my former 24-70/2.8? No, and given that the latter is a much pricier “L” lens, I would not expect it to perform as well. I also think my 50/1.8 is sharper. Nevertheless, image quality is still very good from this lens and again, the focal length is a good choice as a general purpose lens.

Cons

No Use on FF or 1.3x Crop Cameras- I do not currently own a full frame camera but at some point, I’ll own another. I’ll be limited to using it on a 1.6x crop body. Hopefully, that will be a 7D MarkII…Come On Canon!

No Lens Hood– If you are purchasing this lens new, you’ll have to spend a little more for a lens hood. I bought mine used with the lens hood.

Vignetting- The lens does vignette slightly at 15mm and wide open, but stopping down, which is nearly always done on landscape images, helps reduce or eliminate it. This issue has not been a real problem for me, but it can be an issue for some. For what it’s worth, this issue is easily corrected in post processing.

Verdict

Overall, a very good purchase. Will I be keeping this lens in my bag? Yes. Below are a few more samples. I hope you have found this review helpful.

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Christmas Wreath. Canon 7D | ef-s 15-85mm @ 75mm | ISO 160 | f8 | 0.8 sec | Tripod

Hot Air Balloon. Canon 7D | ef-s 15-85 @ 22mm | ISO 2000 | f4.5 | 1/20 sec |Handheld

Hot Air Balloon. Canon 7D | ef-s 15-85 @ 22mm | ISO 2000 | f4.5 | 1/20 sec |Handheld

Friends.  Canon 7D | ef-s 15-85 @ 35mm | ISO 400 | f/5.0 | 1/125 sec | Handheld

Friends. Canon 7D | ef-s 15-85 @ 35mm | ISO 400 | f/5.0 | 1/125 sec | Handheld

Mexican BlueWing. Canon 7D |ef-s 15-85 @ 85mm | ISO 400 | f/6.3 | 1/160sec | HandHeld

Mexican BlueWing. Canon 7D |ef-s 15-85 @ 85mm | ISO 400 | f/6.3 | 1/160sec | HandHeld

Church Interior. Canon 7D | ef-s 15-85 @ 15mm | ISO 400 | f/3.5 | 1/25 sec | Handheld

Church Interior. Canon 7D | ef-s 15-85 @ 15mm | ISO 400 | f/3.5 | 1/25 sec | Handheld

As you can see from the eclectic samples included in this review, the ef-s 15-85mm lens can produce quality images under various scenarios, giving further support to many claims about this being a great general purpose lens.

Until next time, good light and keep shooting. — KEVIN

If I could only have one, would it be: Canon 7D or Canon 1DsMkII?

Canon-7D Vs 1DsMkII

Some of you have noticed that I’ve been posting a lot of images taken with the Canon 7D, which I recently acquired. This has prompted questions asking me whether I prefer that camera over the full framed 1DsMkII. In some respects, yes I do. However, in other respects, no I do not. Don’t you just hate answers like that? Well, let me just list a few important features that I look for in a camera and then give you my impressions on how each model performs with respect to that feature. At the end, I’ll tell you which camera I would choose if I could only keep one.

Autofocus: I have a fairly eclectic portfolio and while I may be in manual focus when shooting macro, I need a reliable autofocus system when shooting birds, mammals, and action sports. The 45-point autofocus system of the 1DsMkII has always been spot on and reliable. With the fiasco that occurred in the 1DMkIII, I wasn’t about to “upgrade” to a camera with spotty autofocus. When it comes to autofocus reliability, I simply have no doubts about the 1DsMkII. It’s fast, accurate, and I can easily select an individual point whenever I need to. So what about the 7D? Well, I trust it too. I’m real impressed with it’s 19-point focus system. I’d say the 1DsMkII has a slightly snappier acquisition, but the 7D is not far behind, if it’s behind at all. What I like most about the 7D’s autofocus is the ability to memorize focus points or zones in either horizontal or vertical format. Now that I am comfortable with the camera, I can easily select an individual point or zone. The 7D can really pinpoint an area for fine-tuning though I have not used that feature yet. The Verdict? As for accuracy, it’s a close call but I’ll give the slight edge to the 1DsMkII. I was tempted though, to call it a draw and I will simply add that I really am impressed with the 7D.

Frame Rate.  If I am shooting portraits or landscapes, then this is a non-issue. However, when shooting action, more is better so the nod here goes to the 7D which fires 8 frames per second compared to the 1DsMkII’s 4 frames.

High ISO. Coming from film, it’s still hard to fathom the capability of today’s digital cameras and the ability to reduce noise (grain to you old film shooters) when shooting at high ISO’s. I remember thinking ISO 200 film was fast. I still prefer to use a lower ISO when possible, but when shooting wildlife in low light settings, bumping up the ISO is often necessary. Of course, this introduces more noise so how far you can go depends on the cameras ability to reduce it. I feel comfortable at ISO 800 on the 7D and perhaps as high as 1000. However, at 1600 ISO, the images just are not useable to me because of the amount of noise. The 1DsMkII images at ISO 1600 are useable though I prefer to keep it at 800 if I have to bump it up. Still, if the need arose, I would have no reservations using it at ISO 1600. Thus, at higher ISO, the nod here goes to the 1DsMkII. Between 100-400, it’s a draw.

Build Quality. The 1DsMkII is a professional workhorse and it’s build is simply superb. I love the way it feels in my hands. The 7D, while not quite the same build, is still very solid. I added the vertical grip and it’s just slightly bulkier than I like though that is a minor complaint. The 1DsMkII is built for the rugged environment so as far as build quality is concerned, the 1DsMkII is the winner.

LCD Screen. This is no contest. My only one real complaint about the 1DsMkII is the small viewing screen. It serves its purpose, but I don’t like its small size. The 7D has a large and vibrant screen and I really enjoy viewing images on it. So, the 7D wins here.

Megapixels.  OK, this is admittingly an over-marketed feature by manufacturers. Early on, we consumers decided that more megapixels was better than less. I recall using my old 8-megapixel professional 1DMkII camera and people using 12-megapixel point and shoots being very unimpressed when I told them mine had 8. It’s as if they believed their cameras were better than that big pro body I was holding. Anyway, my 7D has 18-megapixels and the 1DsMkII has 16mp. Honestly, I’d be much happier if the 7D were a 12 or 14 mp camera because that would equate to less noise at the higher ISOs. So what’s the verdict? As far as I’m concerned, I’ll call this feature a draw.

Sensor.  This is related to the megapixel feature above. The 7D is a crop factor camera, meaning that it has a 1.6 multiplier effect on all focal lengths. Cramming so many pixels on a crop factor body comes at the expense of noise at high ISO’s but it does leave room for cropping when necessary. So for focal length reach, the 7D is the winner. I’m also a fan of its dust cleaning capabilities. The big sensor of the 1DsMkII has no crop factor and thus, can handle noise better even though it’s an older model camera. Without the crop factor, my wide angle lenses are truly wide angle. Thus, for landscapes and other wide angle uses, the 1DsMkII is the winner.

Image Quality. This is the bottom line feature that matters most to me obviously. So forgetting all the hoopla, which camera produces the best quality images? I’m quite impressed with the 7D image quality, particularly in the range of ISO 100-400. However, the images produced by the older 1DsMkII, with its large full framed sensor, are simply better. Not necessarily by a huge margin, but the files are cleaner. In light of this, some of you may wonder why I have been using the 7D so much. Well, I recently acquired the camera and thus, I’ve been using it a lot so that I can get acquainted with its capabilities. I’ve been quite pleased and impressed. Also, I keep my 500mm tripod mounted on the 1DsMkII, while carrying the 7D and 70-200/2.8 on my shoulder for images that are too close for the 500mm. Ultimately, I give the nod on image quality to the 1DsMkII files, but the 7D’s image quality is still quite impressive.

Other Features. The 7D, with its newer technology, gets the nod on several features that are not the most important to me right now but will likely become more of an issue in time. The 7D records movies. This will be important to me someday but right now, I’m most interested in still captures. Finally, the 7D has a on camera flash that has the capability of acting as a master to fire off camera flashes. That feature is important and I will be testing it in the near future.

So which would I chose?

There are other features that I consider from a functional perspective but each model is equipped with these so I won’t list them here. What you most likely want to know at this point is which camera I would keep if I could only keep one. While it’s obvious that both are capable cameras and each has some features that are better than the other, if I could only chose one, it all comes down to image quality. So with that, I would keep the 1DsMkII. That may puzzle those of you who know I have put it up for sale in the past. I actually had a buyer for it once but the idea of parting with it and the reality of parting with it were two different things so I ended up not selling it. In time I will again list this camera for sale because I want to upgrade to the new full frame 5DMkIII. For now though, it is my camera of choice and the mega prints that it produces are outstanding.

So there you go, answers to why I’m using one camera or another. Want to know the best part? I do NOT have to choose just one camera. I have two so my choice now really comes down to what I am shooting on any given photo excursion. If I’m after action, or if I’ll need additional focal length, I’ll reach for the 7D. When I shoot landscapes and portraits (people, birds or mammals) or if I need wide angles, the 1DsMkII is my go to camera. I have two highly reliable cameras that deliver outstanding quality.

Let me know if you have any questions. Until next time, keep shooting. — KEVIN

Artistic Filters: Reviewing the Possibilities.

If someone were to ask you what art was, what would you say? It’s not the easiest thing to define is it? I suspect it’s accurate enough to say that art is whatever you make it out to be but that is quite vague. To try and formalize the definition, here is what I found by searching the dictionary: Art is “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” Of course, “beauty” is in the eye of the beholder is it not? And who decides what is “more than ordinary significance?” Well whatever, lets stick with the notion of what is beautiful. Is photography then, by these terms, a form of art?” The short answer is, Yes! Photographers apply aesthetic principles to produce, either on film or digital sensor, what they see as beautiful, appealing, or of great significance. What’s more, we have a vast number of options (traditional paper, metal, slate, canvas) when considering how to output the images we capture. With today’s technological advancements in software, we can now turn a traditional print into a beautiful oil painting, watercolor, or image with unusual textures. Recently, I started experimenting with artistic filters in Photoshop and in this writeup I want to share a brief review of some of those options, beginning with the built-in filters and then reviewing a Photoshop plugin.

Photoshop’s Built In Artistic Filters

There are many built-in filters that come with Photoshop. I’m not providing a full review of those here but I will share some of the ones I like the most, along with an image showcasing the filter effect. Click on the images to view a higher-resolution file.

Plastic Wrap. As the name suggests, this filter makes it appear as if you wrapped plastic around your subject. You can control the highlight strength, detail, and smoothness settings. Adjusting the highlight strength slider produced a nice white glow behind the flower and superimposed a 5-pt star behind the flower.

Grand Crinum Lily. Canon 1DMkII, 24-70/2.8 | Artistic Filter: Plastic Wrap2.

Rough Pastels.  This filter allows you to control Stroke length and detail, apply various textures (canvas, sandstone, burlap, brick), and determine the direction of light. In this image I used a medium stroke length, detail setting of 7, on a sandstone texture with light from the top left.

Shrimp Boats. Olympus E-PL2 m4/3 camera | Artistic Filter: Rough Pastels.

Bas Relief: This is a neat filter that does not work with every image but where the subject is fairly isolated on a clean background, it produces a cool effect. This filter allows you to control detail, smoothness and light direction. Here I used a detail setting of 12 (high), smoothness setting of 2, and bottom light direction.

Green Jay. Canon 1DMkII | 500/4.5 | Artistic Filter: Bas Relief

Crosshatch: I have shown this filter effect in a prior post, but it’s worth sharing again as it is a cool filter that helped save a slightly out of focus image by converting it into an art piece. To see that review, search “Making Lemondae” in this blog.

Green Jay. Canon 1DMkII | 500/4.5 | Artistic Filter-Crosshatch

Photoshop Plugin: Snap Art3

Now here is a filter I really like. It couldn’t be easier to use and the results are…well, see for yourself. Snap Art3 can be installed as a plugin in either Photoshop or Lightroom. You can download a 14-day trial version but be forewarned, you will want to buy the software and it is not exactly cheap at $199. Still, it is certainly fun to use and though my trial has now expired, I think I may be saving up to buy it. I’m anxious to get some of the images below printed on canvas.

Sunset On Laguna Madre: Oil Painting Effect.

Northern Cardinal Oil Abstract.

Llano Town Square: Colored Crayon.

Wildflowers In Watercolor.

Texas Bluebonnet Watercolor Effect.

Cottontail Reflection.

Brush Country Wildflowers: Impasto Art Filter.

Snowy Egret With Impasto Effect.

Historical Buildings At LBJ State Park In Oil.

So there you have it, fun with Photoshop filters. Let me stress the key operative in that last comment…fun. While I still favor the traditional print, I must admit that I enjoyed creating these artistic effects. I should have printed one of them on canvas during the trial period but either way, I was sold on Snap Art3. I’d like to purchase the software in the near future but I guess the question is, Are the effects worth the cost? You tell me.

Until next time, keep shooting and remember to share the outdoors with your kids.  — KEVIN

Canon 100-400 f4.5-5.6L USM/IS Review

Canon 100-400mm Lens Retracted

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to shoot with Canon’s 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS/USM zoom lens. This lens had long been of interest to me because of it’s versatile focal length. However, at a time when I was buying lenses, I shied away from this lens because of rumors that it was not sharp at the 400mm focal length. Also, I was not a fan of the push/pull zoom design.

Canon 100-400mm Lens Extended

Years later, I was still curious about the lens so I took advantage of my Canon Professional Services membership and requested an evaluation copy. So after two weeks of use, here are my thoughts on one of Canon’s most popular professional zoom lenses.

PROS

  • Image quality. I was very pleased with the quality of images from this lens. It delivered images that were very sharp and contrasty. I have heard rumors of vignetting at the long end of the focal length on full frame bodies, but I kept the lens mounted on a 1.3x crop factor camera so I can not validate those rumors. On a crop factor camera, I did not notice any vignetting.
  • Extremely versatile and popular focal length. This feature has been something that I have longed for in my current setup. With this versatility, it makes a great sports, landscape, bird, and wildlife lens. You could use it for portraits as well but there are much better options for portraits than this lens. Mounted on a 1.3x or 1.6x crop factor camera body, the focal length increases to 130-520 or 160-640mm, respectively. It’s nice not having to keep switching lenses from shorter to longer focal lengths and back again.
  • Image Stabilization. This is both a pro and con, but more of a pro. I used the lens both on a tripod and hand-held and the IS feature simply worked. It’s first generation IS technology though and I’d love to see the newer improved IS system in this lens. Still, better to have some IS than none at all.
  • Compatible with 1.4x and 2.0x extenders. Although this lens is compatible with extenders, I did not use them nor would I except in very unusual circumstances with this lens due to its variable aperture. Autofocus at f8 would be retained on 1-series camera bodies, but only the center focus point would be active. That’s not a big deal as you can focus and recompose. In a pinch, it’s nice that this lens is compatible with extenders but for my shooting style, if I need more focal length, I’ll use the 500mm lens and mount an extender on that if necessary.
  • Fun. With its very versatile focal range and IS technology, this lens is a joy to walk around with.

CONS

  • Autofocus. This feature is actually a pro and a con, but as I’ll explain, it’s more of a con in my experience.  On the pro side, when the conditions are right (e.g. good light, high contrast settings), this lens’ autofocus works superbly and delivers. However, in low-light, low-contrast scenes, the lens is extremely slow and often does not focus at all.  On numerous occasions with a rabbit or bird drinking at a pond, the lens did not lock-on and required a manual adjustment by me to get the lens to lock its focus. Sometimes, I lost the shot while manually adjusting. Anyone who shoots wildlife knows that opportunities come and go and the difference between getting a shot and not getting one can come down to seconds.
  • Push-Pull Design.  I still do not like the design though I did get used to it. The lens has an adjustment ring so you can adjust the tension of the push pull feature. I kept it at the smoothest setting so that I could quickly zoom in and out. The bad thing though is it’s located right next to the manual focus ring and can cause you to accidentally turn the tension ring instead of the focus ring when in manual mode. The push pull design contributes to zoom creep unless you adjust the tension ring to a tighter setting, but doing that makes it harder to zoom in and out.

FINAL IMPRESSIONS

Anytime you write a camera or lens review the ultimate question people ask is whether or not you would add one to your camera bag. I’m still undecided. If I consider the image quality and zoom versatility, I could easily say “Yes.” However, the autofocus issues are enough for me to answer that question with a resounding “No,” at least for now. This is a lens that I desperately wanted to like and there are many things about it that I do find favorable. However, the last thing I need or want is to depress the autofocus button on my camera and have a lens either hunting to acquire focus or not engaging at all. I can’t afford to risk losing a prized image because the lens did not acquire focus fast enough. Before I completely rule the lens out of my camera bag, I am going to ask Canon for another lens to review. It could be that I had a bad copy and I’d like to test another before I make a final decision. Given this one sample though, would I recommend the lens? Well, if you have demanding expectations about autofocus in low light situations, then I would not. If you can live with its deficiencies, the lens does deliver beautiful images and that focal range is extremely versatile so it still may be worth considering. I’ll have a more definitive answer after I review the second copy so keep an eye out for a future update on this lens.

Until then, may the good light be with you… -Kevin

SAMPLE IMAGES (click on images for a high res review).

Brush Country Sunset. Canon 1D MkII, 100-400/L @ 100mm resting on bean bag on hood of vehicle.

Green Jay. Canon 1DMkII, 100-400/L @ 400mm, f5.6. Gitzo tripod.

Mockinbird. Canon 1D MkII, 100-400/L @ 400mm.

Female Cardinal. Canon 1D MkII, 100-400/L @ 400mm.

Green Jay. Canon 1D MkII, 100-400/L @ 360mm.

Whitetail Doe. Canon 1D MkII, 100-400/L, @ 160mm.

Chachalaca. Canon 1D MkII, 100-400/L @ 300mm. A typical scene in which acquiring autofocus was problematic with this lens.

Canon 1D MkII, 100-400/ L @ 320mm. Setting required a manual adjustment to acquire focus. In this light, the lens should have quickly acquired focus.

Green Jays. Canon 1D MkII, 100-400/L @ 330mm.

Cottontail Rabbit. Canon 1D MkII, 100-400/L @ 340mm. Another example where adjusting focus ring manually was necessary to acquire focus.